Extremely loud & incredibly close

There is something about JSF – something about his youth, his methods or his approach to literature – that puts me off. While I am reading his books, I’m totally engaged, interested, caught; looking back though, they feel unsubstantial – like there’s more shtick than feeling, more glaze than meatloaf – and I’m left weirdly unsatisfied.

Anyways, the beginning is as good a place as any to start. 9-year-old Oskar Schell has lost his father in the 9/11 attacks – a day he constantly (and obviously) refers to as the worst day. Grief stricken little boy should make for some schmaltzy drama, but Oskar has no time for that – he is too busy being the embodiment of obnoxious precocity – obnoxious and unrealistic. His correspondence with various authors and scientists is impressive, his knowledge – waaay beyond his years and his freedom of movement – every kid’s dream. One day he finds a key in a vase in his father’s closet and obsessively begins a search for the person (someone with the name Black, since that was written on the envelope) who might give him a clue, another insight into his father’s life. The story of his quest is interspersed with letters: from his grandfather (who has abandoned his family before his father was born) to his father and from his grandmother to him; letters which tell of this couple’s relationship filled with guilt, silences and misunderstandings.

The Schells are a family ruled by tragedy and violence: the bombing of Dresden (when the grandparents’ families died and they lost everything) and the 9/11 bombings, when Oskar’s world came crashing down around him.

There are passages that really stir up something in you, but there’s also triteness – a little too much of it. Oskar’s favorite expression – heavy boots – is childish, disconnected from his precocious self and overused. Also – he invents – he lets his mind wander and tries to come up with new things, things that might make life easier, things that might have saved his dad. But it’s not a factual invention, he never holds a nail and hammer in his hands – it’s more like day dreaming and wishing for an undo button for life. Everything and everyone is too eccentric and outlandish to expect to relate with – everything except perhaps the feeling of loss and sorrow. Thomas Schell’s Sr. pain and melancholic presence felt the least contrived, even if the reason for his shtick (“I don’t speak“) is just as forced as anything else.

Mr. Foer tries to pack as many things as possible in his book: photos, graphics, empty pages and pages where the writing runs over itself until it becomes illegible, changing timelines, alternating stories and references to other authors & works (sampling – as he calls it in the beginning, although his book is more along the lines of this rather than A Whiter Shade of Pale*). Oskar is a clear shout out to Gunter Grass’s Oscar Matzerath (down to the fact that Mr. Foer’s hero carries around a tambourine) and, in the beginning at least, he made me think a lot about the kid in The curious incident of the dog in the night-time; the Dresden bombing reminded me of Slaughterhouse-Five, the YES and NO tattoos are straight out of The night of the hunter (I love that movie) and New York raised to the level of main character is very Auster-esque. But Mr. Foer doesn’t only acknowledge these references (and probably the many others I didn’t catch), he seems to embrace and flaunt them – and somehow, his attitude makes it all OK. It might be a patronizing and slightly soulless little book, but it is a perfect product of the day & age. And, just like any other bit of junk food that I come across (umm…is it wrong to mention cheese pastries when talking about a book? Because I think I just did 😀 ), I swallowed it whole and enjoyed it before I could think too much.

Reviews – lots of them here & a special mention for one whose title I really liked. Also, here you can find the photo on which the flip book at the end is based (9/11 section; 6th photo).

*I’m sure there’s bigger and better in the sampling department out there, but I have a thing for this song and a recent House episode reminded me of it.


~ by ameer on April 22, 2010.

8 Responses to “Extremely loud & incredibly close”

  1. You just managed to put in print everything I barely managed to THINK when I read that book 😮 Cudos!

  2. Agreed, full-heartedly, entirely. But I still love JSF’s first book oh so dearly! Have you read Everything Is Illuminated?

  3. Dear ameer: awesome review. Well, I didn’t read all of the other ones, but I’m catching up.

    Mmm, I suppose I can reply in English, even if we both share a (different) mothertongue. It’s always more exciting for one to miss a point in another language than to be right in his own, I guess 🙂

    Ok, firstly, I like the fact that, even if the book and its author put you off, you didn’t just turn around and scoff at it, but rather try to relate to it, to build a bridge, maybe not of golden sandalwood (as you would have had done for Rushdie, eh?), but a meagre, raffia deck barely supporting certain heavy boots. But still, a bridge.

    And yeah, you are right. JSF is young, energetic, mostly figurative and his characters are not necessarily memorable (except zee funky Aleksandr from ‘Everything is illuminated’). We just have to let him grow up, literally and literarily. He’s the Oskar of his own story and I bet that that vase was in his home at a certain point. See, I’m a bit more sympathetic towards JSF, since I intimately believe that the courage of writing, and above all publishing, means a lot. Certainly, this does not excuse crappy writers from being totaly hollow, but I usually try to stay away from those:)

    And yeah, it is a book about loss, about the force of anamnesis and love, about the magnetism of disaster, all seen through the eyes of a too mature child. I bonded somehow with little Oskar, especially when he explores the world (or rather the american Big Apple, which is evidently larger that the world), searching new answers to old questions: who we are, what we want and what we can do. (It could have gone terribly wrong, in a karate-kid-meets-socrates kind of way but) Oskar managed to draw me into his little detective game, or his quest to taste from the big apple of knowledge.

    Yay to that, yay to JSF, and yay to yourself.
    Keep reading.

    • Dear ubi – thanks for the comment & the appreciation (although at 5.30 am i have to question your judgment a bit 😉 ). Anyways, I do think your comment is so much better than my own post 😀
      Btw – if you’re still watching The Wire I did a post on that too. It’s not a very good post, but I tried to explain why I kept pimping it to everyone (you guys included 😀 )

      • Well, dear ameer, it’s a good thing to question my reasoning at ANY hour. Mostly because I refrain from doing it – the echo still frightens me.
        I genuinely think your post is better. (Faint voice: ‘is better’). And not only for magically squeezing in a procol harum reference:)
        And yeah, I actually read both your posts on The Wire well prior to any book review. They are very enthusiastic, but I was in a similar mood for the first 3 seasons aswell. I liked McNulty and I quote his most epic line quite often, you know which one. I loved Stringer Bell and his intellectual dealings, pun intended. I adored Omar and Bubs, colourful characters like no other. I think that teh most important achievement of ‘the wire’ is that it makes both police and dealers likeable, concomitently and durably, unlike other films/series which dwelve on a manichean assumption. Hell yeah, it’s an awesome tv show. I still have to finish seasons 4 and 5 (took a break, didn’t wanna burn thru it but rather enjoy a lengthy, spaced viewing). Sooo…
        Pimp it, shorty!

      • Yeah – that’s something I loved too (already wrote about it, probably): there’s no absolutes, go pure good / evil. I like gray areas, that’s what’s interesting about life. And movies. 😀 It’s so awesome – I even bought a book about it (and I have every intention to read it). I might be getting a bit too …ermm….fannish 😛

  4. Truth be told: fannish is good. Ergo, reject the ‘too’ (crap, i don’t have italics) and go for it at full speed. And re-up:)

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